Constant entrepreneur runs Hispanic chamber

December 29, 2008
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Melissa Rincones is now the executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, but at 7 years of age, she and her older sister worked summers on a blueberry farm with her parents — and that’s when it all began.

“We spent our summers for about seven years at a blueberry farm where it was hot and dirty and we hated it,” said Rincones. “That’s what got me thinking, ‘This is not what I want to be doing.’ I was 7 years old and I had a career plan.”

After a couple years her father, who also worked at Delphi, saw an opportunity in bringing pop and snacks to sell to the workers. Rincones started running the snack cooler and fell in love with business.

“Even back then I remember liking business. I thought, ‘Okay, if you give me a quarter for every pop I sell …’ So that kind of made it fun,” she said.

After working at the blueberry farm, Rincones experienced what she describes as her biggest career break when her parents opened a Hispanic grocery store named La Favorita in 1987.

Her mother, who used to stay at home during the winter, began working full-time at the grocery store, while her father would head to the store after working first shift at Delphi.

MELISSA RINCONES
Organization:
West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
Position: Executive Director
Age: 35
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Wyoming
Personal/Family: Married 10 years with a 22-month-old daughter
Business/Community Organizations: Salvation Army Advisory Board, Kroc Center Advisory Council
Biggest Career Break: Working for her family’s company

“My dad was a very hardworking man … I learned a lot from him,” Rincones said. “My mom didn’t work during the winter … and that was a big drastic change for us, because we were used to having our mom around; my dad was around after work. They opened the store at 8 or 9 and closed at 7, so they would leave around 7 and come home around 8 at night.”

That change is what prompted Rincones, at age 14, to help out at the store. While in school, she would work during evenings and on weekends, doing an array of jobs such as straightening the shelves, cashiering and cleaning. A year after opening the grocery store, her parents began manufacturing tortillas with the same name, La Favorita.

When she was about 15, Rincones took a job in a nursing home as a dietary aid.

“Basically I prepared the trays and did the dishes. I would find things on their trays like dentures and try to figure out whose teeth belong to who,” she laughed.

After high school, Rincones enrolled at Grand Rapids Community College and obtained an associate degree in fashion in 1991.

“When you’re out of high school you don’t really have this full plan,” said Rincones. “I was into fashion and knew I wanted to do that, but it occurred to me by my second year that I was going to need to move out of the state or at least the city to pursue it. I just wasn’t ready to do that.”

She then enrolled at Davenport University for a general business degree. The first year at Davenport she was a full-time student, but then she started working full-time at Comerica Bank and moved to night classes at Davenport.

Meanwhile, the tortillas manufacturing took off, and in 1995 her parents sold the grocery store to focus solely on the tortillas. Rincones stopped going to school and began working for the family company in 1996.

“At that time I was working at Comerica, going to Davenport, working towards my bachelor’s when they decided to sell the store,” she said. “They also had to move out of the store where they used to produce the tortillas. The business back then was just booming. I stopped … at Davenport and started working for the family business full time.”

Rincones became the face of the family company at the age of 23. Her duties included sales, general bookkeeping and business development. Within in a few years the tortillas distribution went from mom-and-pop stores to Spartan Stores, Family Fare, Save-A-Lot, Sam’s Club and Meijer.

Being young and conducting meetings with seasoned business people was not easy for Rincones.

“It was challenging because I was in my early 20s and people are looking at me like, ‘What do you know?’” she said. “But I did have the opportunity to learn a lot. I did go into these meetings with a full understanding and knowing what I was doing. I think once they talked to me for a few minutes they were comfortable with it.”

After nine years of working for her parents, they sold the tortilla business.

“The experience that I gained from working the business is nothing I would have received in college,” said Rincones.

That experience helped her achieve one of her life goals, to own her own company before the age of 30: Just a few months before her 30th birthday, Rincones closed on a restaurant, La Loma.

“When they sold the business, I was kind of left with, ‘What am I going to do now,’” said Rincones. “My birthday is in November and I closed on it in September, so I made it just by a couple months, but I made it.”

Rincones didn’t know anything about the restaurant business, but came across it through a realtor who was working with her dad.

“My dad had some other things going on with the realtor and he said, ‘Well, by the way, we have this restaurant for sale.’ I saw it as a good investment so I said, ‘Ok. I’ll do it.’”

Even though she was familiar with the food service business through working in her parents companies, restaurants were new to her. There were long-time tenants in the building who operated the restaurant and Rincones quickly devoted herself to learning the business.

“I realized after leasing it out to them for a few months that the building needed a lot of work and I wasn’t going to be able to keep them operating for very long,” said Rincones.

She took over the restaurant business at the end of 2003 and closed the building for extensive remodeling.

“On Dec. 31 of 2003 I closed it down, and on Jan. 1 we started gutting it out; we completely gutted the place until it was a shell. We threw all the equipment out, the ceiling, the floor. … I had everybody hating me. I hooked up with a subcontractor and he already had a full-time job. I let him know, ‘I plan on starting this Jan. 1 and opening Feb. 14.’ He said, ‘Okay, yeah’ and I just saw doubt in his eyes, but we got it done.”

The restaurant reopened on time, and though it was small, it generated good business.

“I taught myself everything I needed to know,” she said. “I went and picked up books from the health inspector and had all the brochures. I knew that you couldn’t have raw meat sitting over eggs in the shelves. I knew the temperatures food had to be at. I was in a position where if I had to, I could hold on to it.”

Rincones also noted she had a lot of support. One of her aunts and her mother were with her during the whole period she owned the restaurant. She was also able to keep the original cook. Seven months after she reopened, Rincones received an offer on the building and company and was able to sell it for a profit.

Her sister, who was working for the state of Michigan, persuaded her to put in a state application earlier that year. Around the time Rincones sold the restaurant, she got a call for a job as an assistance payment worker and started working for the state in 2004.

“I’ve been blessed all my life with things coming at the right time,” said Rincones. “I went from one extreme to the other. This was dealing with underprivileged and economically disadvantaged people. I was used to dealing with a lot of business people who are out there working every day, and I went to working with people who weren’t in those places at the time. A lot of my clients were really trying to make a difference and make their lives better, but I also dealt with people who were like, ‘Oh, I’ll start looking for a job next month. Just taking some time off.’ It was hard because I just didn’t get it.”

She worked for the state until January 2007, when she and her husband, Lee, had a baby. She took maternity leave from the state, but instead of going back, she took her current position as executive director for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“I had followed the chamber since it started just because it was intriguing to me that there was a Hispanic chamber out there,” Rincones said. “I was working for the state and wasn’t in business anymore, but the first section of the newspaper I would check on Sunday was the business section.”

The chamber, which began in 2003, has experienced a lot of growth since Ricones joined, increasing membership and expanding its Web site, www.hccwm.org. The chamber also moved into a new home, 1251 Century Ave. in Grand Rapids, this past September.

“Our role is a business resource to the Hispanic community. We not only help Hispanic businesses grow, but we’re also here to help the Hispanic professional grow in their career,” said Rincones. “I think the location, the fact that we’re here within this community is key. We can reach out to so many more people and do so much more.”

Throughout all the career changes, Rincones has found support through family. She said that both parents were role models, and she admired how they balanced hard work and family. Rincones met her husband at the age of 9, started dating at 17, and married at 25.

“My biggest supporter would have to be my husband,” she said. “He’s been around through all these changes … and has maintained and kept the same job. Some of the things that I’ve done were risky and would have affected us both: buying the restaurant and not knowing anything about it. When I left the state that was a big thing — we had a newborn baby.

“He’s my best friend.”

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